Meghalaya govt-coal mafia nexus aids illegal mining, decimates state's ecology, says activists' report submitted to Supreme Court

A group of social activists in Meghalaya, who have been working towards getting illegal coal mining curbed in the state, have revealed details of a nexus between the government and the coal mafia, displacement of tribal population in the past few decades and the coal mafia targeting those opposing mining in a report.

The activists have submitted the voluminous report to the Supreme Court, seeking an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the attack on RTI activist Agnes Kharshiing by suspected coal mafia operatives on 8 November last year. The activists based their report on existing peer-reviewed research papers, news reports and publicly-available government data.

While endorsing the report, Angela Rangad, an anti-coal mine and environment activist in Meghalaya, said: "The hearing has been scheduled based on an appeal by the mining lobby, but we have sent our report to the bench, hoping that having all documents on record will help the court decide on the case better. All facts point to not only a complacent Meghalaya government but also a colluding government that was not a neutral party while making submissions to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) or the Supreme Court."

Meghalaya govt-coal mafia nexus aids illegal mining, decimates states ecology, says activists report submitted to Supreme Court

Representational image. AFP

The activists have urged the top court to bring an end to coal mining in Meghalaya, emphasising the need for investment in other climate-friendly forms of energy and livelihood. The report lists out a number of recommendations to curb illegal coal mining in the state: Taking seriously the fact that the coal mafia undermines and misleads democratic institutions like the NGT and courts and fixing responsibly; rescinding all transportation orders and no longer allowing any transportat of coal; taking legal action against all involved, including government officials responsible for loss of revenue, as named in reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG); setting up proper online weighbridges and checkpoints; and making no exemptions from the national regulatory laws for the mining industry in Meghalaya.

"With the large number of deaths of coal mine labourers, increasing public health crisis, destruction of the ecosystem and everyday criminality in mines, it is high time that we, as a society, take a strong position against unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya. It is time to protect the larger common good as against giving relief to the few exploitative coal barons," the report says.

This comes at a time when operations are on to rescue the 15 workers who have been trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district since 13 December. The state has been on the receiving end of severe flak for failing to bring the miners out even a month after the rat-hole quarry got flooded with the 15 workers inside and the Supreme Court taking note of it.

Furthermore, the report mentions the alleged suicide of PJ Marbaniang, the officer in-charge of the Patharmukh Outpost in Meghalaya's R-Bhoi district, on 24 January, 2015, after he detained 32 coal-laden trucks illegally transporting coal. It says: "On 24 January, 2015, the drivers of the detained trucks approached Mr PJ. Marbaniang to question him with regard to his detaining the coal-laden trucks. On the night of 24 January, 2015, a constable found Mr PJ Marbaniang in his quarters, lying in a pool of blood. After a span of eight months, the Meghalaya State Police arrested five persons, including a Block Development Officer and NGO leaders, for their alleged involvement in 'exerting pressure' that led to the 'suicide'."

The Government of Meghalaya and the coal mining lobby has taken the NGT's ban on coal mining in the state as a challenge to find more ways at cocking a snook at the spirit of the legal intervention, the report says.

"Rather than find ways to put a stop to the ecologically destructive, economically corrupt and criminally dangerous form of mining prevalent in Meghalaya and look for ways in which mining could exist in consonance with the existing national laws and best practices, both the government and coal mining lobby used the legal opportunities provided by the 'interim' orders of the NGT to transport the 'already extracted coal'," the report says.

Mentioning the 2014 findings of the CAG, the document put together by the activists highlights that the auditing authority had succinctly pointed out the extent of the illegality and criminality around coal mining in Meghalaya and the state government's wilful participation in this unlawful practice that earns the public exchequer major losses.

The CAG stated: "In the past five years (including the current year's report), we have pointed out non/short levy, non/short realisation, under-assessment/loss of revenue, incorrect exemption, concealment/suppression of turnover, application of incorrect rate of tax, incorrect computation, etc, with revenue implication of Rs 959.26 crore in 28 paragraphs."

The report also claims that by not following any environment regulations, coal miners have decimated the ecology of the mining areas, which has resulted in a serious crisis of potable water sources as the quality of water in at least eight rivers of Meghalaya is now far beyond use for drinking purposes.

There are 52 mines per square kilometre in Meghalaya on an average, according to remote sensing data and information gathered using a Geographic Information System (GIS) to properly map mines and drainage patterns in coal and limestone mining areas of the state, provided by the Northeast Space Application Centre.

The activists' report, submitted in two volumes, also mentioned the names of 33 coal mine/depot owners operating in the East Jaintia Hills district, 20 from West Jaintia Hills, 17 each from East Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills, and 29 each from East Garo Hills and West Garo Hills.

"All political parties get funded by the coal lobby. In fact, on a TV show, the president of the (ruling) National People's Party admitted that they were funded in the 2018 elections by coal money, as were previous governments. It is too much to expect that the thief will catch the robber! But the NGT-mandated fine of Rs 100 crore should be recovered from not just the miners but from all government officials, including public servants involved in illegal coal mining. This fine should not be paid out of public funds," environmentalist Angela Rangad asserted.

Coal mining has dispossessed 76 percent of the local tribal population of their land, resulting in large-scale migration of the tribal poor to the urban centres of Shillong and Tura, the report says, adding that illegal coal mining was the major reason for inequality of wealth in Meghalaya.

The transport routes of coal in Meghalaya. Image procured by Syeda Ambia Zahan

The transport routes of coal in Meghalaya. Image procured by Syeda Ambia Zahan

The coal boom has encouraged extortion in the the state's coal areas and also along the coal supply chain, which includes its weighing, transportation, etc, as the resource is moved through Meghalaya and into neighbouring states.

"Coal mining in Meghalaya operates as a 'shadow' economy, wherein district councils, traders' associations, armed extortionists and insurgents, various tiers of the government, border security forces (in the case of exports to Bangladesh) and even weighbridge and toll gate operators have long worked with legal impunity," the report notes.

The Government of Meghalaya has estimated that present day coal reserves stand at 576.48 million tonnes, though only 133.13 million tonnes are classified as 'proved'. According to a government report released in 2015, the annual production of coal in the state rose from 39,000 tonnes in 1979 to 5 million tonnes in 2014.

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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2019 12:31:35 IST

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